We are a married couple, age 65, who have taken 23 cruises in the Caribbean, Alaska, Baltic, and Mediterranean. We chose to fly to Beijing on March 4, 2012, spend a few days there; fly to Hong Kong, spend a few days there; then fly to Singapore, spend a few days there, and embark on the Diamond Princess on March 14. After the cruise, we spend 2 nights in Beijing, two in Xi'an, and a final two in Beijing before flying home to Chicago on a direct 14 hour flight.
Beijing: A fascinating city. Highlights included people watching in the vast Temple of Heaven park, which ended several misconceptions about the nature of living under Communism. Shopping on charming Liulichang cultural street and equally charming Yandai Xiejie street for tea, scarfs, toys, a handmade calligraphy brush, and many other things. All were inexpensive, of good quality, and purchased in a relaxed setting. Saw not one other Westerner there. We had no desire to go to the screaming, grabbing match that is the Pearl Market. Our hotel, the Crowne Plaza Wangujing, is perfectly located within walking distance of much in Beijing, is reasonably priced, and gives excellent service. Our excellent guide was Catherine Lu (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Hong Kong: We loved the bird market in the morning, watching the old men "walk their birds" and look at the new ones offered in the shops. Peaceful. We were, again, the only Westerners. Adjoining the bird park is the Mong Kok flower market. What a place! It killed me not to be able to buy some of those beautiful flowers. Another highlight was the Wong Tai Sin temple. People shake cylinders of fortune-telling sticks, then take the stick that falls out to the fortune teller who tells them their future. Other people toss Buddha's Lips which will fall in a certain way to answer your yes/no question. The area in front of the temple is bright with orange and yellow lanterns.
Singapore: What a beautiful place! Trees and flowers and flowering shrubs cover every nook and cranny. We enjoyed Chinatown very much but thought Little India was the only dirty spot in Singapore. We did not spend more than an hour there. Not interested in anything but the temple and there are loads of those. There is a temple in Chinatown--Marieammen, I think-- that is very similiar to the one in Little India. There is good, reasonable shopping in Chinatown as you exit the MRT and many restaurants. We also enjoyed the orchid garden with its lovely walks and gorgeous flowers. If you do go to Little India, go on a Thursday which is a holy day and they make long leis, for lack of a better word, to put in the temples. Unfortunately, due to the heat, the leis were mostly dead, but they were still colorful.
Boarding: We were scheduled in the staggered boarding plan to arrive at 2, but since we had to be out of our hotel long before that, we arrived at 11:30. Almost nobody was there. We were handed a Bus 2 card and went to the waiting room. There we asked if there were a different section for platinum boarding and were told no. We did not understand that and after a few minutes, moved to a different part of the waiting room and asked again. This time we were told that there was indeed a different area for platinum, our Bus 2 card was taken away, and we were given a Bus B card. Within a few minutes we got on a bus and were on the ship by 12:30 and in our room immediately. Our luggage arrived so fast we barely had time to close the door. On the ship that night the captain apologized for the terrible mess boarding, and we did hear that some people were not on the ship until 4. I'm glad we did not wait to go over there.
We booked a mini-suite and really liked our room, D224. There was so much storage that we never did fill it all. The bathroom was great and the room, large. The balcony was quite large as well, but unlike other cruises, we rarely used it. Either it was way too hot to go out there or way too cold, and we did have a bit of rain at sea. Nevertheless, we like the light that came into the room via the sliding doors. There were two flatscreen TV's in the room, which was nice, though we did not often watch movies or other programming. We were across from the laundry room which was convenient.
Entertainment, we thought, was the weakest part of this cruise. There were one or two funny comedians. The dancers/singers reminded us of a high school group, though. The two female leads had nice voices, but one of the males did not, and neither male could move well to save his life. On one occasion things were so bad that I laughed out loud. They were singing the theme from Zorro and the worst male lead actually pranced off the stage with the clip clop of horses heard from offstage. It was so campy I couldn't stand it. As for the dancers, several of the girls danced well, but the rest were a dismal group. Nonetheless, they tried hard. A group was brought on to do a Dragon dance and a few other things. It was pleasant but hardly anything to scream about.
Food, we thought, was excellent in the main dining rooms. We had some very good meals, and I liked that we could move between 3 different rooms with 3 different specialities. The fajita bowls were yummy in Santa Fe. I did not care for the lunch buffet. It seemed to me that way more fish/seafood was on the menu than ever before. They did have special buffets on deck but many of them also involved seafood. I was also not crazy about the pre-made sandwiches. NCL has a great sandwich bar where you can have your sandwich made to your taste with a choice of meats and cheeses and breads. The main problem with the buffets was that so often the food was cold, and it seems to me that is a biggie. The taste of cold food when it is not supposed to be cold is rather awful. Cold potatoes, cold pancakes, cold waffles, cold French toast, cold, cold, cold. I also thought having the same rolls just about every night in the main dining rooms was unimaginative to say the least. There is lemonade at lunch, which I did not hear about until we were 3/4 of the way through the cruise.
The ship was in fine shape, easy to get around, and nicely decorated. I always like the Explorers' Lounge which offers a cozy venue for comedians and bands. There were several good bands on, including a couple with weird names like Nightwatch or some such. Girls with several guys behind them. There was one very odd group, however, who played loungy music and appeared to be made up of a mother and her 3 sons.
The shopping was so-so. They had two Asian bazaars which were just full of pathetic stuff that were out all the time anyway and a "garage sale" which consisted mostly of clothes you could get in K-mart and bad tee-shirts from other cruises. If you're going to have an Asian bazaar, why not get some nice and varied things in. It's not like Asia is not replete with great things to buy.
If you crave salty things, plan ahead. Bring them on board. A can of Pringles was $6.
We took the shore excursion to the Grand Palace and Golden Buddha with a river cruise thrown in. This was an excellent excursion. The Grand Palace complex has the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen, and I've seen a bunch. Every square inch glittering with gold and stained glass and china and tiny mirrors. The fantastic guardian figures. It was terrifically hot which lead to one woman on our tour passing out, and the walks were terrifically uneven which lead to one woman on our tour twisting her ankle so badly that she was sent back to the ship in a cab. The ride down the river was fascinating and reviving. We had a truly delicious (hot) buffet at the Ramada Inn. We passed on climbing four stories to see the Buddha, as we were hot, tired, and I have a bad knee. The only downside to the tour is that although the brochure says you will be taken to a "local shop for souvenirs," the local shop is a huge jewelry store with only a small selection of souvenirs in the back room. This is too bad because there is the best shopping ever on the pier and most of us were too late in getting back to shop there. We had no sooner arrived than ship people came out and told everybody to get on the ship now!
We took the on your own tour and met our guide at the Rex Hotel. As we only had three hours in Saigon, I was concerned we would not be able to do all we wanted to do, but our guide whipped us around so efficiently, that we were at our bus meeting place 35 minutes early. We walked the French Concession and saw some interesting buildings there, then headed for the Thien Hau temple which was great. Loved lighting a joss cone to ensure the health of our grandsons. Visited the Chinese market other than the Ben Thanh mess. The Chinese market was void of other tourists. We bought cinnamon bark for 50 cents, Vietnamese coffee makers for $1, nuts and dried fruits, and other things there very cheaply. Then we toured New City, had a delightful lunch at a small local place a few blocks from the Tax Trade Center, then did a great deal of shopping in the air conditioned Center. Everything was cheap, you could pay with American dollars, and there was a huge variety of good quality stuff for sale. Upstairs was a supermarket where you could buy beer for 45 cents, soda for 25 cents, and lots of inexpensive snacks. They accept credit cards and Dong only up there but didn't balk at charging $2. Our excellent guide was Bao Loc (email@example.com)
Port: Nha Trang
We walked to the gate where we found a man who spoke English organizing tours using a picture menu. We had a cab for four hours for $45 which took us any place we wanted to go. We went to Long Son Pagoda, Cham Towers, Dam Market, a fishing village, and the beach. If you want to be taken out into rural areas, they would do that, too. There is some shopping on the pier but everyone pretty much has the same thing. There were some nice views from the Towers. It was a pleasant place and no vendors bothered you. Long Son was also a pleasant place if you did not mind being literally haunted by overly persistent vendors from Hell. The most persistent I have ever seen. I don't usually mind vendors, just keep walking, etc. But that did not cut it with these people. One even pinched my arm five times quite hard because I would not buy her fan! I had to knock her hand away to get her to stop. Take lots of dollar bills for shopping in Viet Nam markets and on the streets.
Port: Hong Kong
Since we had been here for several days already when the weather had been cloudy, we were happy to get a sunny day so we could go up the Peak. We did not take an excursion. It is easy to do on our own. One hint here. When you arrive at the Peak Tram to go up the Peak, the line will be worse than it is at Disney World at Christmas. Take a cab up. There will be no line coming down and the cost is exactly the same. You can't beat the view. The ship's shuttle drops you quite close to the ferry and the MRT so you can get anywhere quite easily. I loved the ferry!
Our only misstep. We took the ship's On Your Own tour which wasn't entirely on our own. If I had known better, I would have either gotten a private guide or just taken the shuttle in to town. But at any rate, we were taken to Jin Mai Tower. Basically, this stop included 2 hours of standing in lines and a ten minute viewing of cloudy Shanghai. I'm totally serious. And that ten minutes included the pearl spiel. We were all given a card for a free gift which the guide said he thought was a "mug." What it was, was an unset cheap pearl that you were given a sales spiel about putting in a necklace for $31. Don't waste your time on that. This was not a worthwhile experience. Then we went to the Yuyuan Gardens which are lovely when empty but not so much when there are hundreds of tour members there, moving lockstep across uneven surfaces and narrow bridges, etc. Lastly, we were given 3 hours in a very overpriced shopping mall themed in Chinese architecture. Lots of restaurants there, mostly Chinese. All the Americans headed for the McDonalds. There were so many people there that you were constantly jostled to the point of wanting to hit somebody. We took refuge back in the gardens which were now lovely and peaceful and enjoyable as the tour groups were gone.
We took the excursion out to Shimabara, and it was very pleasant and beautiful. We visited a Samurai Village that had picturesque houses set off by picturesque walls and a picturesque creek running down the street. Really nice. We enjoyed it very much. The fruit trees were just coming out and camellias were blooming. Then to the Castle. We did not go inside although the tour did. There was a Christian museum inside, and we preferred walking the grounds. Then to a city that was covered over by lava after an eruption. Two things not so good. The lunch was Japanese food and truly horrendous. My husband is accustomed to Japanese food and will eat anything, but we only picked at this stuff. Nobody liked it. It was presented beautifully, but if was inedible. Fortunately, I had packed a cheese sandwich and some cookies and ate those. Small gift store in the hotel where we ate and the gift stores we were taken to mostly sell foods. The Japanese bring each other food as gifts from trips and that's what these stocked. It was a very scenic drive out on the Peninsula and we enjoyed the day. Some overpriced shopping for handmade items, crocheted, etc., on the pier. Seemed like some local charity group was sponsoring it.
We went out to the temple by the sea and it was lovely. Our guide talked so much that our time was limited there, however. The interesting thing here is the tiny baby Buddhas that people leave with a prayer for a child, for money, for food, whatever. I also liked the huge lotos buds that hang from the ceilings of the temples. We next stopped at Apec House, which I think they should dump from the excursion in favor of more shopping time in Busan. There was great shopping but we only had a half hour. Lots of food sellers on the street they take you to. Try a Korean pancake. They are scrumptious. Tiny amount of shopping at the pier but people were like vultures, three deep, around it. A money exchange and post drop was right on the pier.
We chose to be picked up by a private van, which cost us $16 more than the ship's shuttle into Beijing and was at least 1 Â½ hours faster than the shuttle. He picked us up at 7:20, and we were at our hotel shortly after ten. Smooth sailing and no hassles. Guide Catherine Lu can set you up with drivers. We used them five times.
Beijing: We did the Forbidden City on our own, the Great Wall with Catherine, the night markets on our own and wandered about. Do go to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. There was almost nobody there and a woman on our cruise told us that when she went to Badaling before the cruise, the day she went there were 200,000 people on the Wall. We saw it the way it should be-- in silence. Do take the Cable Car up and do know that the steps onto the wall are 18 inches high. Much shopping there of Wall related items. Many items are dirty, however, and scratched, so watch for that. Do not buy dried fruits here. They are triple the price of elsewhere. There are two night markets off Wangfujing, one for locals and one for tourists. Try both. They are only a few blocks apart. They swell the same foods, but the local one is a far more vivid experience and was a blast.
Xi'an: We flew here and stayed two nights. Our excellent guide was Jeff (firstname.lastname@example.org). Loved the Arab Quarter. So many things to see there! The cooks on the street, the great stores, the persimmon cakes (yummy), the mosque. Shopping is more expensive than in Beijing. Your cheapest shopping is in Beijing and Viet Name. The Terra Cotta Warriors, are, of course, a must.
Beijing: And back where we started. What a great trip!! Found out at the airport that the Star Alliance of airlines, which is huge and international, is now allowing only one free checked bag per reservation! Fortunately, we made our reservation before June 1 and did not have to pay for our other three bags. But this is something to think about in the future. We have always taken four bags for a long cruise abroad. Doing so now will add over $400 to our trip. Not cool.